Defiance (1980)

Director: John Flynn Starring: Jan-Michael Vincent, Teresa Saidana, Danny Aiello .USA. 1h 43m

I often find that I have to defend myself when I’m vocal about loving this offbeat hero flick. I have such a soft spot for movies, it’s bold and creates really strong characters, often flawed but with great intentions, just like real people. Defiance is as much a story about rebelling against tyrants as it is about a lone wolf putting down roots and finding that he needs to reshape the landscape before settling down.

The world that Flynn has created around his main cast is a delightful picturesque slice of 1970’s inner city life, but the rough diamond characters are something so very human, it’s really easy to ignore the touch of shoddy acting.

Jan plays Tommy, who’s nothing more than an average Joe. Fresh off a boat, and trying to avoid trouble at all costs he ends up in a high rise. Seeming to love his ability to blend into bodies in the city, Tommy doesn’t really have much to do but read and study in his apartment. Slowly making friends almost begrudgingly and reluctantly manages to become a focal point in a tenant uprising against a rough street gang.

There comes a time when we have to stand up and be counted. This is the story of one man who did.

I’ve always found a touch homosexual tension in Flynns work, namely the wet soapy T-shirt scene in Lock Up (1989) that always raised an eyebrow, but the dodgiest scenes in Defiance goes down in some public toilets and a shower….. Nothing strange about that *ahem*.  For the most part, the acting is a little rough around the edges, there are no award winning actors here, but the sentimental warmth is outstanding. However without the tears and melodrama, this film would easily become Death Wish!

The narrative is a victim of the 70/80s tropes,  where there has to be a cute kid from the wrong side of the tracks , dodgy enough to understand the streets, but with a good moral compass, his job is to help the hero. At times with all the stereotypes, it feels a little basic, and the film can signpost where things are going. The drive to see our steely eyed hero kick some street ass keeps fans stuck in the mix.

With a stylish and sometimes narrow combination of dingy streets, hide away rooftops and local faces to encompass the mixing bowl of races and religions, there’s a clear distinctive tribe of good honest people and a 2 bid street gang, an organised set of horrible individuals, that seem to rule through fear and intimidation. In reality I reckon some 9 year olds from Detroit could easily take them out in an afternoon. I’m not sure if it’s just a factor which didn’t age well but the threatening behaviour of the gang just doesn’t hold up compared to the ruthless thugs in John Carpenters, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). Weaknesses aside we believe them to be tough because we’re told they are tough. It genuinely feels as if Flynn was trying to mesh together the ultimate gang from hard hitting classics such as the Warriors or Exterminator, just without the nastiness, but they still manage to intimidate and threaten, but the streets are about to be taken back!

As much as I respect Jan Michael Vincent for his cinematic contributions he was cast more for his looks and personality rather than mind blowing performances, and this is the style of story which all hangs on the lead, Bronson and Eastwood would have made this hard and raw, a muscled hero like Stallone would have amped up the action, but somehow with his flaws and achievements, there’s just something which fits right with whatever happened here.

Rating: 6/10

Related: Rooftops (1989), Deathwish (1974), Across 100th Street (1972), Damnation Alley (1977), Rolling Thunder (1977)

Lists: Tennant and High Rise Spotlight: Jan Michael Vincent Post Discussion Trailer

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